Rebel, Rebel: Ann Patchett
Updated: Apr 3
In this series, I discuss the so-called rules of writing--and how great authors manage to break them.
BEL CANTO by Ann Patchett (Perennial/HarperCollins)
When I picked up my copy of BEL CANTO at a used book store last summer, I'd heard a lot about Ann Patchett but had never read her stuff. I now count BEL CANTO among my top five favourite novels of all time (even though the ending broke me clean in two). Patchett's M.O., I've since learned, is to chock every page with heart and humour, then to crush our souls. I say this with admiration; not many authors can stir both joy and despair.
But I digress.
BEL CANTO, in addition to breaking hearts, also breaks the rules. Patchett employs an omniscient narrator to tell the story of a months-long hostage situation and the relationships that form between captors and captives. In other words, she head-hops, intentionally sliding from one character's perspective to another's within the scene. She writes in the third-person (she/he/they) but from an all-seeing point-of-view, zooming in and out of our characters' heads at will.
Why you might want to follow the rules
The omniscient narrator is famously difficult to pull off, and increasingly rare. Many agents and editors shy away from it as a matter of principle. In the hands of a less-skilled writer, the constant shifting of perspective could feel jarring. It might also prevent the reader from becoming fully invested in any single character, since our attention is so divided.
Patchett doesn't have this particular problem because, frankly, she fleshes out her characters so fully and in such little space that we come to love them all. (At least, I did.) More on this below.
It's also worth noting that BEL CANTO was Patchett's fourth published novel. She had already mastered her storytelling technique before setting her sights on the omniscient narrator. For us emerging authors, who don't have the same experience (or readership!), we might want to stay clear of this device for now.
Why it works to break the rules in this case
On one level, this book is a comedy of manners. It pokes fun at both captors and captives, as well as the absurd little society that develops around them. By letting us into so many characters' heads, we become privy to the thoughts, expectations, and misbeliefs they have about each other. This creates a lot of humour! It also excites the reader, because we know things about the characters that they don't know about each other (or themselves). This force, called dramatic irony, can serve to propel a story forward because as readers, we see trouble brewing long before the characters do.
And what trouble it ends up being! You've been warned.